One of my weekend morning guilty pleasures is reading the L.A. Affairs column in the Saturday Los Angeles Times. Regretably, this title is a bait and switch; the actual column is a self-described chronicle of “Romance, Dating and Relationship” experiences written and submitted by readers. These stories are inevitably tame and generic, without a hint of the thrills and dangers of an actual affair. Still, I keep reading it to see if anyone will ever chronicle the real thing. After years of disappointment I’ve been forced to take matters into my own hands:
My Lymphoma is the ultimate femme fatale.
We met in Brentwood, introduced ten years ago by Doctor X, my ear, nose and throat specialist. He had just biopsied a swollen node from the back of my neck.
He held it up to the light so I could get a better look. It was about the size and shape of an oversized kidney bean. He gently massaged it between his thumb and forefinger.
“I’ve been doing this for twenty-five years,” he told me. “This doesn’t look or feel cancerous.”
The lab results told a different story, of course. Her full name was Chronic Lymphocytic Lymphoma. CLL for short.
From the beginning, our chemistry was off the charts. Like me, she’s non-agressive and slow to develop. She takes her sweet time but she’s relentless. There is no cure for her.
My Lymphoma never sleeps.
Sometimes in the middle of the night she perches on my chest like a succubus. Leaning over until we’re nose-to-nose, she tries to steal my breath away. I wake up with a start to find myself face-to-face with my cat Lola, but she isn’t fooling me.
My Lymphoma is a shape-shifter.
My celebrity oncologist Dr. Y strongly advised me to keep our relationship on the down-low. And for nearly three years - a period of what Dr. Y calls “watchful waiting” - we managed to do just that. Only my wife knew about Lymphoma and me. My wife knows everything.
Then on a visit back home my mom, who hadn’t seen me in a couple of years, outed us.
“What’s that on your neck, son?” This query from across the room at a family gathering. Disclosure time was suddenly upon me. I gathered the family around and put my cards on the table. There was a single audible gasp from one of my sisters - a breast cancer survivor.
Lymphoma and I went another year before I really tried to break it off, with my first round of chemotherapy. Six treatments, spaced three weeks apart.
I came to think of the infusion treatment room at my Santa Monica cancer clinic as the Chemo Lounge. It serves about a dozen clients at a time. Some are in their 20’s and you’d never guess they're members of our cancer club, others are aged and sucking oxygen from portable tanks, looking like every breath might be their last; and everyone in between.
At the end of my first day of treatment the infusion nurse looked at me closely and said “I think that swelling is already going down.”
The next morning I looked in the mirror and the swollen lymph nodes on the side of my neck were all but gone.
My Lymphoma was melting away. I didn’t see her again for almost two years. It was a welcome remission; and I began to forget the first letter in CLL stands for Chronic.
Then she was back, spiking my white blood cell count and swelling me up again.
My oncologist Dr. Y put me on a drug called Ibrutinib, the cutting edge new oral chemotherapy. The name sounds like one of Satan’s little helper demons, but Ibrutinib kept My Lymphoma at bay for almost four years.
Then she was back again with a vengeance, the little succubus. You know I can’t quit you, she whispers to me in the night.
Ten years together now and she’s taken her toll. I'm melting away myself these days. I look in the mirror and see half the man I used to be; but I’m all the man I need to be for my Lymphoma.
Illustration: Faithful to None, paperback cover by Ernest Darcy Chiriack
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